By FRANK BIRBALSINGH
Golconda: Our Voices Our Lives
Lawrence Scott, Ed.,
UTT Press, 2009,
pp.146. ISBN 978-976-651-000-8
As its title implies, Golconda: Our Voices Our Lives is a work of oral history, a collection of comments, stories or memories from villagers in Golconda, Trinidad, in their own words (Voices) and about their own experience (Lives.) Their village began as a sugar estate in the first half of the nineteenth century when, it seems, the English proprietor George Monkhouse named his property after “Golconda” a former fortress near Hyderabad, in India, which he remembered from his days in the East India Regiment. The estate later became a settlement for indentured Indian labourers, and later a mainly Indo-Trinidadian village.
As Lawrence Scott, the editor of Golconda explains, the aim of the volume is to catch the actual experience of villagers, conveyed in their own direct speech rather than through academic or second hand commentary. Hence the recording and transcription of comments from more than a dozen Golconda villagers some of whom provide three or more contributions, the collaboration of three assistant editors – Naila Arjoon, David D.A. Maharaj and Marilyn Temull, and two local Consultant Historians – Angelo Bissessarsingh and John Ramsaran, all of whom doubled as contributors.
With so many contributors chiefly of short (usually one-page) prose narratives and even shorter poems, the editor exhibits the patience of Job combined with the judgment of Solomon to contrive order out of disorder, so that Golconda appears as a nicely ordered text arranged in six main sections labelled: Sugar; Estate Life; Religion, Traditions & Festivals; Childhood & Schooldays; Marriage; Life Stories. And even if some repetition creeps in it simply enhances the credibility of the oral medium. It would be natural, for instance, indeed unavoidable, especially for a speaker providing two or more contributions, to slip into repetition.
At the same time, for all its concern with naturalness, credibility or truth, Golconda boldly advertises itself as a volume with thick pages of sumptuously glossy white paper and lavish coloured photographs, a physical format suggesting that even if the volume began as a simple community project collecting raw material in the interest of cultural retrieval, it soon transformed itself into a genuine labour of love destined for display on coffee tables rather than mouldering as arcane research filling an empty space on some obscure library shelf.
Historically, after all, sugar was the lifeblood of Caribbean plantations never mind lesser crops like coffee or cotton, cocoa or citrus. More importantly, according to Angelo Bissessarsingh in his “Prologue”, indentured Indian labourers who first arrived in Golconda, Trinidad, around 1850, became “ the dominant fibre in the fabric of life in Golconda for more than a century thereafter.” (p.XIII) This makes it clear how much the service of Africans to the Caribbean sugar industry, before the end of slavery, has in common with the labour of indentured Indians for the same industry after Emancipation, for example, with Caroni Limited in Trinidad or Bookers Brothers in Guyana. No wonder, as Moonan Amichan asserts, more than once: “They [indentured Indians] worked as slaves but they were never slaves.” (p.74)
There are no two ways about it: life for indentured Indians in the “poverty stricken barracks” (p.59) of Golconda was bare, basic and brutish. Accommodation consisted of one room divided into a kitchen and a “gallery” which served as living room, bedroom and everything else. (Bath or toilet facilities are not mentioned.) What this could mean for Jhaimany Seeta Seebaran’s family of fourteen or Radha Benjamin’s of sixteen we can only imagine! In Jhaimany’s case: “Sometimes I use to go to school without anything to eat and I drink water until I come home.” (p.75) Meanwhile, from Jaitoon Mahabir we hear: “Sometimes we going to school, we eh even have a underwear to wear. Had to wash [same] clothes to wear next day.” (p.19) It would take more research than a thousand academic treatises could muster to match the eloquence and sheer pathos of “a underwear to wear.”
Working conditions in Golconda were no different as Sookier Amichan proves when forced to work despite illness, or when she reveals: “We putting sugar shit on we head in basket (that was cane manure, we used to say sugar shit) … And all that thing used to come down in we face. Rain could come, sun could come, you have to go and do that work, and that’s it.” (p.34) Sookier’s comments support the notion of Golconda as a gigantic prison where workers lived in constant fear of resisting authority or violating rules and regulations. It was enforced browbeating that compounded further abuse from drivers, foremen and overseers when, according to Moonan Amichan, for example, “drivers used to take advantage of the ladies working with them, [and] the ladies who gave in to the drivers got the easier jobs to do.” (p.14)
For all this tribulation, however, or their prison-like conditions, with the rum shop and cinema as their only outlet of dubious social relief, the resilience of Golconda residents is nothing short of miraculous through such survival techniques as maintaining kitchen gardens and farm animals, and their resourceful improvisation of commonplace objects for household purposes. Most miraculous of all was their effort to build fresh community out of ethnic and cultural fragments left over from the colonial era, not only of different castes, but Hindus and Muslims, Catholics, Anglicans and Presbyterians, not to mention Africans and Indians.
Here is Bernardine Sandiford: “I get on good with the Indian. Bhagwat (religious ceremony) I there. They never look at me bad. As a negro they always have me as their own. “(p.114) If there is lingering doubt about the usefulness of these comments and memories, consider that the Golconda barracks were demolished in the 1960s, the cane railway discontinued in 1998, and Caroni Limited closed for good in 2006. All this surely justifies Lawrence Scott‘s claim that: “one of the main values [of the Golconda Project is] to record a swiftly disappearing way of life.”(p.135).